A national study of 11,235 kids ages 9-to-13, conducted by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) journal, found that a kid’s mental health is positively impacted when participating in team sports. 

The study, led by Matt Hoffmann, Cal State Fullerton assistant professor of kinesiology, was published in the open-access journal PLOS One.

“As mental health trends continue to change, it’s important to get up-to-date information about the link between organized sports participation and mental health,” said Hoffmann. “In this study, we analyzed one of the most comprehensive datasets on U.S. youth sports participation and mental health to date.”

Parents and guardians reported on aspects of a child’s mental health on a behavior checklist. The researchers looked for associations between mental health data and a child’s sports habits while accounting for other factors that could impact mental health, including household income and overall physical activity.

The analysis concluded that kids who play team sports were less likely to have anxiety, depression, withdrawal, social problems, and attention deficits. Hoffmann noted that it collected the data before the pandemic.

“We know that regular participation in youth sports declined over the pandemic due to shutdowns in organized sports leagues and also within school sports,” he said. “At the same time, research has shown that children and adolescents suffered from mental health during the pandemic due to factors like isolation. These results tell us that getting our youth re-engaged in organized sports, particularly team sports, is important as the pandemic calms down.”

Hoffmann said the most surprising finding was that kids who only played individual sports, such as tennis or wrestling, were more likely to experience mental health issues than their counterparts who played no organized sports.

“Previous research showed that individual sports participation did not have the same mental health benefits as team sports participation, but there was no evidence that individual sports participation could be associated with worsening mental health compared to not playing sports,” he said. “We can’t say anything with certainty, but we know that playing individual sports can involve pressure and stress,” Hoffmann explained. “These athletes don’t have teammates to share losses or failures with, so they may shoulder the blame. “I also think it’s important that we not jump to strong conclusions about the possible mental health problems that may stem from individual sports participation. Overall, I think more research is needed to determine what may be happening with individual sports and their role in youth mental health.”

Ensuring young athletes who play individual sports receive support from parents, guardians and coaches are critical, Hoffman said, as is the need to increase mental health awareness.

“Adults need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of poor mental health in kids and look for ways to help. While feelings of sadness after a poor performance and some anxiety here and there is a normal part of youth sports, regular signs of possible mental health problems can be cause for concern,” he said. “Enhancing awareness and mental health literacy among all involved in youth sport, including kids themselves, is a good starting point.”

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